Over the years as a Guardian ad Litem and Private Investigator I have testified at least a thousand times during family law bench and jury trials. I have seen my share of good lawyers, bad lawyers, and pro se litigants. This article is for those of you who dare to represent yourselves during court and for persons unfamiliar with the court process and etiquette. I realize that representing yourself or going to court for your first time can be a daunting and a terrifying experience, but it can be done successfully.
For those of you who are contemplating representing yourself or who have never seen a family law case it would wise to actually sit in on other family law court cases to get a better understanding of how things work before you begin your case. Almost all family court cases in Austin are open to the general public with the exception of adoptions.
The following is a list of 10 suggestions that you may find helpful if this is your first experience with the process or if you decide to act as your own attorney:
1. Dress properly for court. At the very least, men should wear a dress shirt and a tie, and a sport coat and slacks are recommended. Do not wear blue jeans and a t-shirt. Personally, I try to dress just under what the attorneys are wearing which means I generally don't wear a suite. A sport coat, tie, and slacks are generally what I wear during bench trials. Since jury trials are a bit more formal, I will sometimes wear a suite. Women should generally wear dresses with hose or a women's business suit – either with pants or a dress is acceptable. Again, try to wear an outfit just under what other women attorneys are wearing. Do not wear short dresses or blouses showing lots of cleavage, and especially no midriffs.
2. Always stand when the judge enters or leaves the room. Wait to sit down until the judge sits down or unless he tells you to sit beforehand. If you wish to address the judge or to make an objection to what the other party says or does, always stand unless the judge gives you permission to sit which is not very often in formal hearings. Remember to sit while questioning witnesses.
3. Make sure your cell phone is turned off before entering court. Placing the phone on vibrate as long as it is silent while vibrating is probably okay. Do not answer your phone in court unless you have the court's permission. Generally, this is only permissible if the Court has asked you to get somebody on the phone. If a personal phone call must be answered strive to take the phone call outside the courtroom before answering it unless the court has given different instructions.
4. Do not read magazines, paperback books, or newspapers in court even when court is not in session.
5. Avoid ex parte communications with the Judge. This means never talk to the judge about the case when the other party is not present. On rare occasions, an ex pare communication may be appropriate if the Court does not want to alert the other party, such as when evidence may be destroyed if notice was given beforehand. Ex parte communication also includes writing letters personally to the judge without copying the other party.
6. Address the judge as "Your Honor" in most cases. In less formal hearings, it is sometimes okay to refer to the judge as simply "Judge."
7. Do not talk to the other party while in court. Talk directly to the judge about what you would like to say to the other party.
8. If you wish to enter documents into evidence, remember to make copies for the other attorney to read. The other party has a right to inspect these documents and object to them on legal grounds prior to the documents admission into evidence. Likely, the court clerk will number each document as an exhibit prior to giving it to the Court for review and admission.
9. Keep in mind the rules of hearsay. You cannot repeat what others tell you unless it was a statement from the other party. Hearsay also applies to documents unless there is an affidavit indicating that the document is a business record written during the normal course of business, such as therapist notes.
10. Lastly, keep your emotions under control. Don't laugh or smile if the judge should admonish the other party. Even making eye contact or certain looks can get you in trouble with the judge. I try to keep a poker face on while in court. Essentially no matter what happens, good or bad, I try to remain emotionless. Remember, not only does a judge evaluate evidence, they also evaluate you.